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Caraviello: Could points system leave Chase fit to be tied?

October 05, 2011, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com



Caraviello: Could points system leave Chase fit to be tied?
More ties atop the Cup standings in '11 than in past seven years combined

The final day of the 2005 NASCAR season was notable for several reasons. Tony Stewart won his second title in the sport's premie division, allowing him to ascend to that elite level reserved solely for multiple-time champions. Jimmie Johnson crashed, finished 40th, and fell to what still stands as a career-low fifth place result in final standings, a near-fractious episode that required a smoothing of relations between him and crew chief Chad Knaus, and paved the way for what would become five consecutive crowns. And in what seemed only a footnote, Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle finished tied for second in points.

Biffle won the race that afternoon at Homestead-Miami Speedway, and with it claimed the tiebreak over Edwards, six victories to four. The difference mattered little at the time, with the exception of one place in the standings and a few hundred thousand dollars in bonus money at the year-end awards ceremony. Now imagine that very same scenario, with not a runner-up finish, but a championship at stake.

"The simplified points system implemented prior to this season evens the gap between every finishing position to a mere one point."

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"Prior to this year NASCAR saw only four ties over a span of 252 races, an average of one every 63 events. Now we've had five ties in a single year. "

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It could happen. The simplified points system implemented prior to this season evens the gap between every finishing position to a mere one point. Clearly, that's a notable change from the previous, tiered system that separated drivers based on where they finished -- the top two by 10 points, the next four by five points each, seventh through 10th place by four points, and everyone else by three (excluding bonuses). Now, that natural stagger built into the old system is gone, and we're seeing more ties atop the standings than at any other time in recent memory.

Such instances aren't unheard of, of course, but until now they've been fairly rare. The tie between Kevin Harvick and Edwards following Sunday's Chase race at Dover International Speedway -- Harvick is technically on top given that he wins the tiebreaker, four victories to one -- marked the fifth time this season that two drivers have found themselves knotted atop the standings following a Sprint Cup event. That doesn't sound like a lot, until you realize that throughout the remainder of NASCAR's Chase era, a tie atop the premier-division standings has only occurred four times.

That's right -- there have been more ties for the points lead this season than in the past seven years combined. Prior to this past weekend, Harvick and Kyle Busch were tied atop the standings leaving Richmond. Before that, Busch and Jimmie Johnson were knotted after Bristol. Before that, Edwards and Busch were tied following Watkins Glen. Before that, Tony Stewart and Kurt Busch shared the points lead leaving Las Vegas.

Is that just a fluke? It's not easy to think so, given that there were no ties atop the standings at any point last season, or in 2009. The last tie prior to this year came following the opening Chase race of the 2008 campaign, when Edwards and Johnson were even leaving New Hampshire. There was also a tie after the 2007 Chase opener, this one between Jeff Gordon and Johnson. Given that in both those cases the points among the championship contenders had been reset the previous week, the timing of those ties wasn't unusual. And yet, their frequency was still incredibly rare.

Those post-Loudon logjams were the only such ties of the 2008 and '07 seasons. There were no ties in 2006, and 2005 saw just one -- Stewart and Johnson knotted after the Chase race at Charlotte. The 2004 season also brought with it just one tie, and once again it came back in old New Hampshire, when Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kurt Busch were even atop the standings following the inaugural race of the inaugural Chase.

The point of all this is to illustrate just how uncommon ties have been -- at least, until now. Prior to this year NASCAR saw only four ties over a span of 252 races, an average of one every 63 events. Now we've had five ties in a single year. Even more eye-opening, four of those ties have come since the Aug. 14 race at Watkins Glen, a stretch encompassing all of eight race weekends. Is all this just numerical circumstance? Is it a function of the new points system? Is it a result of how close the competition is among the top drivers? Is it time to cue the Twilight Zone theme song and summon Rod Serling?

Because going from a tie every 63 races to a tie every other weekend certainly does seem like slipping into another dimension. No question, competition is intense, and the top drivers in the championship hunt do seem like a closely-bunched group; among the top five, the difference in average finishing position is a narrow 3.1. But they were as closely-bunched in 2004, too, a season that resulted in the thinnest championship margin on record, and where the difference in average finishing position among the top three drivers was a mere 1.1. But even then you didn't see ties with this degree of regularity. One big difference between then and now? The points system, of course.

It's enough to make you wonder about the odds of a tie in final championship points, which still seems rather distant despite the 50-percent chance the sport has experienced over the past eight weeks. It's never happened before; in fact, it often hasn't been even close, something that was particularly true in NASCAR's first few decades when the difference between first and second could run into the thousands of points. A few times, though, the possibility has dangled out there. Kurt Busch edged Johnson by just eight in 2004, Alan Kulwicki squeezed by Bill Elliott by 10 in 1992, and Rusty Wallace slipped past Dale Earnhardt by only 12 in 1989.

But ties weren't nearly as frequent in those years as they are now. So what happens if the smoke clears at Homestead in six weeks, and two drivers are knotted atop the standings? The first tiebreak is of course race victories, a statistic where leader Harvick and eighth-place Kyle Busch are currently -- egad! -- tied with four apiece. From there the tiebreaker moves on to most second-place finishes (Edwards and Johnson lead with four each, in case you were wondering), then most third-place results, and on and on into infinite ridiculousness.

In all likelihood, it won't happen. The chances just seem too long. Then again, who thought the playoff fates of two Major League Baseball teams would be determined by two final pitches thrown over two 162-game seasons? Who thought we'd see four ties in eight weeks after seeing the same number over seven years? In a championship format and a points system geared toward keeping everything as close as possible down to the very end, why not hope for the ultimate in tight racing, and a tie after 36 events? Who knows what could be the difference -- maybe Harvick's victory at Fontana back in March, or Johnson holding off Edwards for second place somewhere down the line?

Yes, yes, it's all just too crazy to contemplate. But so is the idea of five ties -- and counting -- in a single season. If it's ever going to happen, this could be the year. If you listen closely, you can almost hear Rod Serling's voice.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.